Building on Greek-Turkish Detente


May 10, 2010

Greece's high defense spending has contributed to its economic woes. Indeed, the country has Europe's highest military expenditures relative to GDP. Improvement in relations with Turkey could enable Prime Minister George Papandreou—who hosts Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week—to cut defense spending and make it easier to rescue an economy on the brink of bankruptcy.

Improved Greek-Turkish ties would be welcomed not only by foreign investors and European Union officials, but also by Greece's NATO allies—above all the United States. Clashes between Greek and Turkish military aircraft in the Aegean remain frequent. In 2006, a Greek fighter pilot was killed in a mock dogfight with a Turkish fighter aircraft.

These incidents could lead to inadvertent military conflict between the two NATO allies. This nearly happened in February 1996 during the crisis over the islet of Imia/Kardak, which was claimed by both countries. At a time when NATO faces growing challenges in Afghanistan, the last thing it needs is a conflict in the Aegean.

Several other political factors also favor a new push to improve Greek-Turkish relations.

On the Greek side, Papandreou has made better ties with Turkey a top foreign-policy priority. Papandreou enjoys a clear parliamentary majority, and he is highly respected in Turkey, owing to the pivotal role he played as Greece's foreign minister in initiating the rapprochement with Turkey in l999.

On the Turkish side, Erdoğan also has an incentive to improve bilateral relations. A reduction of tensions with Greece would improve Turkey's image in the West and could give new momentum to its stalled bid for EU membership. Turkey would also demonstrate that it was applying the doctrine of “no problems” with its neighbors not only to those in the East.

Erdoğan's domestic position, like Papandreou's, is strong. He won an overwhelming victory in the July 2007 election and faces little serious opposition, particularly as the Turkish military's influence has been weakened by charges that some high-ranking officers were involved in plots to destabilize the government. While some of the charges appear to be based on flimsy evidence, they have made the General Staff more hesitant to challenge the prime minister.

The effort to repair relations could begin with small steps on relatively non-controversial issues, such as an agreement by Turkey to re-open the Halki seminary—a long-standing Greek request. Greece, in turn, could agree to do more to improve the situation of the Turkish minority in Thrace, an issue of concern to Ankara.

These small steps also could include economic measures, such as a loan/swap agreement between the Greek and Turkish central banks in support of the International Monetary Fund's program to help Greece restore financial stability. The two sides could also cooperate to repatriate illegal immigrants, an issue that has taken on greater urgency as Turkey has become a growing transit route for illegal immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.

Finally, on sensitive Aegean sovereignty issues, the leaders could seek agreement on a series of new confidence-building measures, or even agree to submit some of their disputes to external arbitration.

Such steps would not solve all the problems dividing Greece and Turkey. But they could re-energize the security dialogue between the two countries and lay the foundation for future accords on other, more controversial issues.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps to improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. He served on the National Security Council staff in the Carter Administration. Charles Ries, Senior Fellow at RAND, served as U.S. Ambassador to Greece from 2004 to 2007.

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